We can all feel a bit ‘liver-ish’ from time to time – a late night with a bit too much alcohol or rich food can wreak havoc with tummy health, impacting on our energy levels and mood, and making us feel rather woolly headed! But did you know that the liver is very much allied to our lymph – that vital network of vessels just beneath the surface of the skin that removes waste from the body and is so key to leg health and shape?
The liver is a natural multitasker: it plays a large role in metabolism, helps build proteins, breaks down hormones, clears toxins from the bloodstream, and much more. It also produces a large amount of lymph: lymphatic vessels in the lymph function to retain fluid and regulate the immune system. So it’s no wonder that the repercussions of a ‘congested liver’ make us feel so rotten – and if it’s ongoing can even lower your quality of life – highlighting the need to keep this vital organ functioning well.
Ayurvedic practitioners attribute liver congestion to heat that is trapped in the liver. They seek to clear and cool the organ through lifestyle changes and herbal treatments. Ayurveda views the liver as ‘hot’ or ‘pittic’ because the fiery, dynamic energy of pitta – one of the three doshas (along with vata and kapha) that regulate the physiological functions of the body – guides and supports these myriad functions of the liver. Too much fiery energy, however, can accumulate in the liver and lead to physical problems.
In Ayurveda the symptoms caused by excess pitta are outlined as headaches, flushed face, red, burning eyes, acne, nosebleeds, and outbursts of anger. Inflammation, allergies and symptoms of indigestion (like heartburn) are also on the list.
Small changes in your lifestyle – like eating cooling foods, getting regular exercise, and taking time to relax – are often enough to bring pitta back into functional balance.
HERBAL FIRST AID TO TREAT A WEAK LIVER
Many herbs that support liver function can calm and pacify imbalanced pitta and reduce liver congestion. Some of them increase bile flow, others support the enzymatic detox processes, and some simply nourish or stabilise the liver. The herbs mentioned below are generally safe for clearing liver stagnation, but if you have a significant liver condition, it’s best to consult an experienced health practitioner before treating yourself.
Universally recognised as strengthening for digestion, bitter herbs cause a reflexive secretion of gastric juices and tone the muscles of the digestive tract. They also support detoxification by helping the liver process incoming nutrients and filter impurities from circulation. And they have antibacterial and heat-clearing properties, which support immunity and pitta balance.
Herbalists often combine barberry, turmeric, dandelion, celandine, goldenseal, gentian, chiretta, and/or neem in ‘bitter’ formulas. These herbs are best taken in small doses as tea or diluted extracts 20 to 30 minutes before a meal to support liver function, detoxification, and digestion. (Pregnant women should check with their doctor first.)
Herbal wisdom says that in order to efficiently clean up a toxic liver, your bowels need to move, otherwise toxins removed from the liver get reabsorbed rather than excreted. According to ayurveda, pitta accumulates in the small intestines, and purgatives (laxatives) help to release it.
Enter oat bran! The foundation to the Cellu-Lite Plan diet, is one of the gentlest purgatives, and easily added to your diet. The ayurvedic classic bowel tonic triphala also helps with long-term regulation; try two capsules before bedtime daily for two to three months.
Milk thistle has become a relatively well-known liver tonic in recent years, as more research has demonstrated its effectiveness in reversing chemical-induced liver damage and preventing liver toxicity during chemotherapy.
Considered non-toxic, milk thistle can be taken for months and is a common ingredient in ‘liver support’ formulas because of the way it nourishes and strengthens the organ.
In the Chinese system, many herbs – notably schisandra and bupleurum -fortify and protect the liver. These can be taken as part of herbal formulas for several weeks and help repair liver damage. Always take liver-tonifying herbs separately from bitters, as directed on the labels or as prescribed by a knowledgeable practitioner.
The liver is a resilient organ, so it can often ‘decongest’ itself if you reduce the burden on it. Every time you eat anything, you flood the liver with nutrients and potential toxins. Fasting helps it catch up. Detoxification processes require energy and nutrients, however, so it’s wise to drink fresh vegetable and fruit juices every three hours or so when fasting to provide this needed support.
Drinking easily digestible nutrient-dense juice gives you the minimum you need calorically to prevent the breakdown of muscle for fuel. Ideally, fasting only lasts one to three days, and occurs when you’re calm and relatively at ease – not when you’re racing around and stressed out. Don’t starve yourself or let yourself become weak or depleted and always stop a fast at any sign of exhaustion (dizziness, weakness, cold sweats, or trouble with thinking). Pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses (especially diabetes and low blood sugar) should consult their GP before undertaking a fast.
LIVE FOR YOUR LIVER
Overall, both ancient wisdom and modern science agree that how we live has a huge effect on our livers. So even though you can’t avoid chemical contaminants completely, you can keep your liver healthy if you just take care of it by following the suggestions below also found in our nutrition guide:
- Nourish yourself well: eat good-quality food when you are hungry. Avoid overeating (more liver burden) and refined or heavily processed food.
- Remember that high-fibre diets help keep the bowels, liver, and blood clean by facilitating elimination. Hydration (drinking enough water) also helps.
- Try fasting on fresh juices for a day – or just one meal – every week or two.
- Minimise exposure to chemicals of all sorts—from food additives and cosmetics to caustic cleaning agents. Remember that the liver needs to break down every chemical entering the body either for use or excretion.
- Experiment with some bitter or liver tonic herbs for six to eight weeks. Note any changes in body, energy, or mind.
- Take time to breathe deeply, relax and meditate. Stress can aggravate liver congestion.
Your liver is incredibly capable. Trust that it can cope with whatever you’ve exposed it to so far and then do your best to make its to-do list a little less long!
STIMULATE YOUR LIVER
Try these tips for stimulating your liver:
Massage your toes: Traditional Chinese medicine identifies ‘four gates’ for relieving liver stagnation – two acupuncture points each at Liver 3 (Taichong) and Large Intestine 4 (Hegu). These are located in the hollow between your big toe and second toe on your feet, and on the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger on both hands. You can increase the flow of chi (vital life force, the equivalent of prana) and blood throughout your body – and relieve stress and anxiety – by massaging them as follows:
- Taichong: Place your right heel in the space between the big and second toes on your left foot – it’s similar to Liver 3 on your hands – and knead for 30 seconds. Reverse feet and repeat.
Stand on your head: Yes really! The body detoxes itself through lymph flow, aided by muscle movement, so turning your body literally on its head will reverse the flow of lymph and help get rid of impurities.
Try artichoke: The more research we do, the more this fruit pops up. It helps the process of bile production and distribution which is one of the liver’s most important jobs. It’s a bit of a pain to cook but luckily it’s delicious.
Get active: Whether it’s running, walking or swimming, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the liver which is crucial to its functionality. Louise says to aim for 150 minutes a week. (That’s only 20 minutes a day – totally do-able.)
Stock up on lemons: A warm glass of lemon water in the morning is a brilliant liver cleanser and provides a good dose of liver-loving vitamin C.
Make a smoothie: A glass of milk mixed with honey and turmeric works wonders, according to Champney’s expert nutritionist Rebecca Douglas; “turmeric is the new superfood for liver cleansing,” she says. I like to think of it as the new hot chocolate.